Rediscovering Richard Dawkins: An Interview – The Daily Beast

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He might be prone to controversial outbursts, but what does the world’s leading atheist and scientist really like to talk about? J.P. O’Malley visits Dawkins in his Oxford home to find out.

 

Whenever Richard Dawkins’s name appears in the news nowadays, it’s usually for the wrong reasons. The occasional controversial outburst by the British scientist about religion can sometimes be insulting, misinformed, and arrogant. They also make it easy for us to forget why we come to read his work in the first place. While it’s certainly true that Dawkins’s 2006 book The God Delusion was an intriguing riposte to the world of theology, it’s not his area of expertise.

 

Too often Dawkins's anti-clerical rhetoric makes him seem like a dour and negative man. But lure him into a conversation about biology and the tone changes. The angry and defensive manner is replaced by a sincere warmth and geniality. It is a shame that Dawkins’s scientific views have taken a backseat in the public domain.

 

Dawkins’s 12th book is An Appetite For Wonder, a memoir. It brings the reader back to his childhood days during the Second World War in sub-Saharan Africa, where his father worked in the British Colonial Service. We also read about Dawkins’s privileged upbringing in Oxfordshire in southern England, where the family moved to when he was a small boy. Dawkins also spends considerable ink in this memoir recalling how he came to write The Selfish Gene, his first book. Its phenomenal success in 1976 made him a modern day prophet for Charles Darwin’s ideas.

 

I met with Dawkins at his home in Oxford, and tried to rediscover why he is still one of the world’s most innovative thinkers today.

 

You discuss in the book an experiment you conducted very early in your career, where you deprive chicks of natural sunlight, to explore the concept of whether their knowledge of the world around them is innate or learned. Does that experiment tell us anything about the advanced information that humans are genetically equipped with?

No, it doesn’t, because the experiment hasn’t been done on humans. But something like it could be done on humans. It would be regarded as unethical to do it, unless it was very mild treatment. But in principle you could deprive humans of all kind of things to see what happened. You could bring up children without contact to language and see if they could develop their own. You could bring up children without any knowledge of how to copulate, and then see if they could work it out when they reach sexual maturity. I don’t really see how there would be much objection to bringing up babies in an environment where light came from below for a few days. It could be done when they are in hospital so they experience light, but they are not actually deprived of light.

 

If we brought children up with light coming from below, so that every time they saw a solid object, like their mother’s face, it would look the reverse. Obviously babies don’t peck like chicks so what do you do? Something like gaze fixation. A lot of work has been done on babies fixating their gaze on things that interest them. And it’s been shown that if you give them a picture of a face, they will fixate on a face that is the right way up, rather than the wrong way up. But as far as I know that experiment hasn’t been done.

 

How important was W.D Hamilton’s theory of kin selection in the two papers he published in 1964 in the Journal of Theoretical Biology, for you writing The Selfish Gene? Would you never have written the book if you weren’t so inspired by his ideas?

I think in order to write The Selfish Gene it required Hamilton. I hadn’t read George C. Williams at the time, but I think that might have done it. But Hamilton was enormously influential on me. I had pretty much laid out the rhetoric of The Selfish Gene in 1966, a full 10 years before the book was written. And that was inspired by Hamilton.

 

Can you remember when you first started to think seriously about questions like why are we here, and what is our purpose in life?

I guess I should have tried to say more about that in the book, but didn’t really. It was probably at Oxford that I started seriously thinking about those questions. But I think I was probably curious about them at the age of about 8 or 9. And being inspired by the idea, or at least by the question of whether space has a bound, or time has a bound, or goes on forever. University, especially in biology, gave me the tools to think about this in greater detail.

 

Written By: J.P. O’Malley
continue to source article at thedailybeast.com

23 COMMENTS

  1. Haven’t read the whole article yet but any main stream media reporter from the US who can use “kin selection” and “Hamilton” in complete sentences without sounding like an idiot has already earned some respect.

  2. I don’t think I can express my appreciation enough–on behalf of myself or anybody else who was horrendously bullied as a kid– for Richard’s comments about bullying in his new book. I have wondered for years about how it relates to evolutionary psychology (although back when I first had these questions in high school I never heard the term “evolutionary psychology”). What I wonder more than anything else is this: Do the bullies, at least on some primitive, unconscious level, want the victim dead? I think the answer is yes. Now, I’m not a scientist and this is little more than just my personal observations, so I realize I could be 100% wrong. But think about this– chimpanzees will kill one on their troop who is acting strangely– because it indicates they are sick and threaten the survival of the troop. Our ancestors had a better chance of surviving the more similar they were to another. And if my speculation is true, I can tell you that sometimes this desire to kill the victim is not primitive and unconscious. Phoebe Prince hanged herself in a stairwell. The bullies wrote “accomplished” on her Facebook page and then came to school with nooses around their necks.

    Evolutionary psychology equally intrigues and infuriates me.

    • In reply to #3 by InYourFaceNewYorker:

      “Do the bullies, at least on some primitive, unconscious level, want the victim dead? I think the answer is yes.”

      I disagree. I don’t think the evolution behind that behaviour is that dark and evil.
      I was a little guy in school and managed to never get bullied.
      Why? This is because I’m sure that I conveyed a mentality that said, “if someone pushes me, I push them back!”.

      In terms of evolution I think bullying arises as a way for some people to test the social environment.
      That is within us, there maybe a social drive/pressure to exploit your peers as MUCH as possible.
      Its easy to see how such an instrinct can prove to be an advantage in some aspects of society.
      So yea, I believe that those with these instinct are essentially testing, “just how much can I get from this guy” or
      “Just how servient can I make this person?”.

      Its here that you have to send a firm message that if they push you, you push back.
      That is to say that even the strongest feel pain and ideally do not wish to experience it.
      So if it occurs to them that you are someone who can deliver pain,

      even just a little pain in return, then they will deter.

      That said, I can see the point on, how an us vs them mentality could drive some to harm or kill others in an
      evolutionary context. i.e. An individual’s primary evolutionary interest maybe to look for whats best for
      its genetic type and to be aversive to competing types. So if someone sees a person that’s different to them they
      may naturally experience aversion to them. If this is true then Nature really is dark.

  3. “While it’s certainly true that Dawkins’s 2006 book The God Delusion was an intriguing riposte to the world of theology, it’s not his area of expertise.”

    I’m pretty sure his book is an area of his expertise.

    • In reply to #4 by McCourt:

      I’m pretty sure his book is an area of his expertise.

      Theology isn’t really a subject so one doesn’t actually need to be an expert in anything to refute it. The reason Richard’s book is so successful is because he is expert in some and extremely well read in so many other real subjects.

  4. Dawkins writings on religion are scientific. He is complaining about religious people writing bogus information about science. It is not different than if some ignoramus at an obscure university started claiming that there was overwhelming evidence for Lamarckianisim. He is rightfully angry at the lies and the outrageous cheating to persuade of the lies.

    I would feel the same way at someone pumping out reams of completely bogus information about computer science, like those companies that try to trick you into thinking you have a virus and to tell you an expensive cure.

  5. O’Malley opens with a barrage of the complete suite of the standard, very stupid and already repeatedly refuted canards (theology not being Dawkin’s area of expertise etc.). Why would O’Malley (who elsewhere claims “as a rationalist, I don’t believe in God”) do that? My suspicion has been congealing of late that this very common practice is engaged in by bottom feeding D list writers to generate traffic by provoking controversy.

    Sure enough, O’Malley himself furnishes the smoking gun when he writes elsewhere: “It’s well known that books with religion and science in their title can stir a bit of controversy in the public domain, which is never bad for business.”

    This sleazy, intellectually dishonest ambush (delivering it as a preface to and not during the interview where Professor Dawkins could have defended himself) describing him as insulting, misinformed, arrogant, dour, negative, angry and defensive should at the very least bear the consequence that this is the only interview this hack, leaching off of Dawkins’ celebrity, will ever be granted. I hope this will alert the community to steer clear of this carpetbagger.

  6. What is written in these kinds of interviews is not very important because Richard has a very large world wide base who are interested in reading this book, and once people do, the book will speak for itself.

  7. ‘the world’s leading atheist?’ Surely all atheists are equal in their atheism. Is there a world leader in not believing in fairies, or ghosts, or etc. etc? How the ‘strident, arrogant, misinformed etc.,’ Richard Dawkins puts up with these people is staggering.

  8. Theology “is not his area of expertise”. Before one can have expertise in an “area” you need to establish that it is an “area” at all. I lack (and respect) expertise in physics, baseball, sumerian pottery, playing the bassoon, and an almost infinite array of other worthwhile areas of expertise. I can imagine – and envy – what it would be like to have expertise in Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, Jewish history, comparative mythology, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Palestinian archeology and many other legitimate areas of expertise. But “theology”? What would “expertise” in “theology’ even begin to look like? “Area of expertise”? What “Expertise”? What “area”?

    Richard

  9. InYourFaceNewYorker comment 3

    Evolutionary psychology equally intrigues and infuriates me.

    Me too, partly because it tends to downplay the role of learning and learnt behaviour. And a lot of research suggests that long periods of learning are our evolved feature and that it is actually learning that has given us an evolutionary advantage. For example the so called obstetric dilemma used to be the explanation for our helpless offspring but new research suggests the brake on pelvis size is not fixed, it could increase to allow larger more mature offspring but that our babies are born at the right time for a primate our size. Therefore long periods of learning are what natural selection has favoured, it has favoured immature offspring rather than them being a consequence of something else. Which would make sense for scavenging, non specialist opportunistic primates living in complex social groups and changing environments..

    And that means many behaviours are learnt and therefore subject to change. For example bullying. In Dawkins day it was the norm, now it is recognised as toxic and children are taught it is wrong. It doesn’t stop it but it has changed our attitudes to it. So given research suggest learning is a very important evolved trait, I think evolutionary psychology should look at it more seriously.

    • In reply to #13 by PG:

      And that means many behaviours are learnt and therefore subject to change. For example bullying. In Dawkins day it was the norm, now it is recognised as toxic and children are taught it is wrong. It doesn’t stop it but it has changed our attitudes to it.

      The attitude has only begun to change in the past 10 years or so, tops. When I was a teenager in the ’90s, conventional wisdom was to “just ignore them,” sometimes even when harassment turned physical. Even today many adults still buy into the “just ignore them” crap. What fantastically ignorant advice.

      • In reply to #16 by InYourFaceNewYorker:

        When I was a teenager in the ’90s, conventional wisdom was to “just ignore them,” sometimes even when harassment turned physical.

        My attitude has always been try to resist killing them. Fortunately for for most bullies it seems that they have so far instinctively recognised my primitive desire to end them.

  10. Yeah, perhaps that sentence might have been badly worded. I was actually trying to make the point in the introduction to the interview that hearing you speak about science is far more intriguing than about religion. I am in agreement with you that there is no area to be an expert of in theology, since it is fictional. And as an atheist myself, I was trying to make the point that science is far better a subject to discuss than religion, since it deals with facts. I find too much talk about religion turns into a game of headline grabbing, and that is not what I wanted this interview to be about. I think people may have been picking up my point of view wrong in that respect.

    • In reply to #14 by JP O Malley:

      I am in agreement with you that there is no area to be an expert of in theology, since it is fictional.

      It is entirely possible to be an expert in fiction, as long as one acknowledges that one’s subject is fictional. I like to think of myself as a bit of a Sherlock Holmes buff, but admittedly I’m no expert.

      BTW I’ve recently been watching the series Bones, she is so hot!

    • In reply to #14 by JP O Malley:

      Yeah, perhaps that sentence might have been badly worded.

      Ah, what a relief, so it was only perhaps the choice of words and the order they appeared in.

      >
      I was actually trying to make the point in the introduction to the interview that hearing you speak about science is far more intriguing than about religion.

      >

      And as an atheist myself, I was trying to make the point that science is far better a subject to discuss than religion, since it deals with facts. I find too much talk about religion turns into a game of headline grabbing, and that is not what I wanted this interview to be about. I think people may have been picking up my point of view wrong in that respect.

      The author spends half the intro trying to make a point about science and religion; the subtitle refers to Professor Dawkins as the world’s leading atheist; the penultimate paragraph refers to him as a prophet; 5 out of the 20 interview questions are about religion.

      O’Malley did not want this article to be about religion because too much talk of it turns into headline grabbing? How about leaving out all mention of religion, had he considered that? But that would not be as “good for business.”

      • I was going to try that approach but the editor wanted a word on religion. I would have preferred to have done just a full interview on science actually. In reply to #19 by godsbuster:

        In reply to #14 by JP O Malley:

        Yeah, perhaps that sentence might have been badly worded.

        Ah, what a relief, so it was only perhaps the choice of words and the order they appeared in.

        I was actually trying to make the point in the introduction to the interview that hearing you speak about science…

        • In reply to #20 by JP O Malley:

          I was going to try that approach but the editor wanted a word on religion. I would have preferred to have done just a full interview on science actually.

          Please show him this.

          • In reply to #21 by Peter Grant:

            In reply to #20 by JP O Malley:

            I was going to try that approach but the editor wanted a word on religion. I would have preferred to have done just a full interview on science actually.

            Please show him this.

            Now rolling the responsibility for the egregious content and methods applied in this article over on his editor just ads spinelessness to the intellectual dishonesty this writer (a freelancer no less, not even an employee) displays in his writing.

            This constant meme-like, blind, knee jerk repetition in article after article and interview after interview of words like “insulting”, “misinformed”, “arrogant”, “dour”, “negative”, “angry” and “defensive” (he missed the crown jewel “strident”) falsely describing Professor Dawkins has the effect of character assassination. Left out of context is the fact that any critique of That Of Which Our Society Brooks No Criticism -religion, will automatically garner you such labels. Labels you would never receive criticizing, say, politics with the exact same rigour.

            We can hope that Mr O’Malley will bring the honesty in his writing up to par with his considerable writing skill.

  11. InYourFaceNewYorker comment 16

    In reply to #13 by PG:

    And that means many behaviours are learnt and therefore subject to change. For example bullying. In Dawkins day it was the norm, now it is recognised as toxic and children are taught it is wrong. It doesn’t stop it but it has changed our attitudes to it.

    The attitude has only begun to change in the past 10 years or so, tops. When I was a teenager in the ’90s, conventional wisdom was to “just ignore them,” sometimes even when harassment turned physical. Even today many adults still buy into the “just ignore them” crap. What fantastically ignorant advice.

    It is addressed in every school in the UK and there is a recognition of the long term damage it does to peoples self esteem. It is even now mildly recognised in the work place tho more difficult to deal with.

    That, unfortunately doesn’t stop it happening but it has made in a socially unacceptable behaviour on every level. And any school that isn’t seen to be tackling it as best they can tends to get plenty of negative publicity.

    • In reply to #18 by PG:

      InYourFaceNewYorker comment 16

      In reply to #13 by PG:

      And that means many behaviours are learnt and therefore subject to change. For example bullying. In Dawkins day it was the norm, now it is recognised as toxic and children are taught it is wrong. It doesn’t stop it but it has changed our attitu…

      As I said, it is getting much better, but we still have a ways to go.

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